Ahmedabad: One of the finest innings on Indian soil by a visiting captain, a key spinner going wicketless on a fourth-day pitch and some tired captaincy ensured that the first India-England Test was taken into the final day. England, who had their backs to the wall when the day began, fought brilliantly through first Alastair Cook and then Matt Prior to not only erase the deficit, but take a lead, ending the day with their second-innings score reading 340 for five on day four at Motera in Ahmedabad on Sunday (November 18).
While questions will undoubtedly be asked about India's inability to force the situation when they were well on top, the simple explanation is that an extraordinarily committed batsman played Test cricket as it was meant to be, and kept the opposition at bay.
Still at the crease, and apparently not yet having broken sweat, Cook's unbeaten 168 had come off a painstaking 505 minutes and included 20 boundaries that were struck without ever taking a serious risk. While India had known all along that Cook was most comfortable on the back foot, and that a slowing pitch could defeat their plans, their inability to coax so much as a false shot from Cook on the fourth day will give them cause for pause when considering how the rest of the series might unfold.
Cook's method was as elegant as it was simple. He hung back as deep in the crease as the length of the ball would allow, and played late, with soft hands against spin. Being left-handed, Cook was well placed to negate Pragyan Ojha, covering the turn with bat and pad held close together. R Ashwin, down on his luck and occasionally lacking the patience to build pressure solely through his stock ball, did not pose as many questions of Cook as he should have.
If at the end of the day, Cook was the name on everyone's lips, the situation was quite different in the first half. While Cook did his work in the background, Nick Compton was removed from the equation by Zaheer Khan, who got the ball to do just enough to nail the batsman in front of the stumps.
Jonathan Trott showed none of the jitters that marked his first-innings dismissal, and had just about settled into his rhythm when Ojha struck, inviting the drive and turning the ball away from the bat to take the outside edge. Dhoni took a smart catch, and the crowd that had gone rather quiet came to life.
The buzz received a further boost when Kevin Pietersen fell to a left-arm spinner for the 51st time in international cricket. Playing a big sweep without quite being sure of the length of the ball, Pietersen was beaten in the flight and comfortably bowled around his legs. Ojha was up and running, and expectations were high that the first-innings rout would be repeated.
Ian Bell, walking out after three wickets had fallen for 37 runs, clearly had his first-innings dismissal at the back of his mind, and stayed resolutely within the crease. With the spinners flagging and a partnership building, Dhoni turned to Umesh Yadav, who showed once again that swinging the ball at pace can defeat batsmen in any conditions. The reverse that Yadav got meant that the ball ducked in late, and Bell was late on a delivery that umpire Tony Hill reckoned would hit leg stump. Yadav repeated the delivery to Samit Patel first up, and again the finger went up, although this time there was a case for the batsman feeling aggrieved, with the snickometer suggesting contact between bat and ball. At 199 for 5, England still trailed by 131 and hope floated of a four-day finish.
But that was not counting for Cook's extreme durability. Having already become the first person to score centuries in each of his first three Tests as captain, Cook battled on, and found an ideal foil in Prior. Neither attacking too often nor being exaggerated in defence, Prior was the perfect example of playing your natural game and reaping the rewards. With the bowlers tired and the field spread, Prior was able to score freely, and his unbeaten 84 in an eighth-wicket stand of 141 allowed England to end the day with a 10-run lead.
Ashwin had figures of 41-9-104-0 and with Ojha also shouldering a heavy workload, sending down 44 overs, it was a bit odd that Dhoni did not bowl Yuvraj Singh till as late as the 102nd over.
With Gautam Gambhir away in Delhi after his grandmother passed away, things had not gone at all right for India. Cook and Prior have shown they can bat long, and another session of the pair will ensure that India concede all the psychological edge they grabbed in the first innings.